Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

Insights through two exhibitions exploring the legacy of an assassinated multimedia artist

Cha_Life Mixing perf1
Image: Theresa Cha foundation, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive

Long before PSY’s Gangnam Style eclipsed all recent cultural contributions to come out of South Korea, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha was perhaps one of the first video artists to emerge from the nation on the global scene.

Cha’s story is a tragic one. Aged 12, she was forced into exile, arriving eventually in the US. In the 1970s the young artist moved to California from Korea to study at Berkley (where much of her film archive now remains). Just as her career as a multimedia artist was on the rise, winning praise and attention from the contemporary art world, Cha’s life was cut suddenly short, when she was brutally murdered without known motive during a visit to New York in 1982. She was 31. 

Consequently, the archive of Cha’s work, which also engages with photographic and written media as well as performance, has remained fragmentary until now – but new interest in Cha’s significant contributions before her premature death is being explored through two new exhibitions in Paris (Penser Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’, Bétonsalon, Paris 2013) and London (A Portrait in Fragments, The KCC, London, 2013) this year.

Adding another layer of complexity to her often dense, and feminist-fuelled, and at times complex and dialectical work, Cha has remained an enigma: critics have had to turn detective but have been able to stitch together all of the pieces of the unsolvable mystery of Cha’s final thesis.

From her position as a young woman being westernized by America, and unable to return to her homeland, Cha’s work speaks of the difficulties in deep understanding when it comes to conceptual art. Cha examines, for example, the injustice of displacement – stemming from Korea’s bitter fight against Japanese and Chinese invasions – a collective trauma that forced many Korean’s to the US, including the artists’ own parents. Cha’s work it feels particularly relevant now in the way it questions the apparently insurmountable differences between East and West, and in approaching a deeper understanding of what constitutes ‘international art’.

‘A Portrait in Fragments’ curated by Bea De Souza opens on September 24, 2013 at the KCC, 3 The Strand, London W1.

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